Leadership in a time of (midlife) crisis

According to Daniel Levinson, I’m in a transitional phase.

In his theory of life structure, adulthood isn’t just one big blob of stability between childhood and old age, it’s a phased period with islands of stability separated by chunks of transition.

I’m in one of those chunks.

I’m in the “midlife transition“. This happens to people my age, people forced to tick the 40-45 age bracket on forms. Sometimes the word “transition” is changed to “crisis” when discussing this phase.

Listen to this cheery lot:

life structure comes into question, usually a time of crisis in the meaning, direction, and value of each person’s life.  neglected parts of the self (talents, desires, aspirations) seek expression.

I got a bass guitar for my fortieth. I used to play when I was a kid, and I haven’t lost any of the old magic. I didn’t have any old magic, which explains why I haven’t lost it; I was rubbish then and I am rubbish now. The difference was that back then I still had the irrational hope of one day making it as a musician*.

What was I thinking?!

It gets worse …

Men are seen more as parents than as “brothers” to other men who are somewhat younger than them and this message comes as an irritation at first.

Irritation! You’re not kidding† – and worse still, the transition is not just how we are perceived by men, but also by women. We go from being a potential bit of stuff, to being an irrelevant piece of the background.

Also at this time, men becoming increasingly aware of death and they are reminded of how short life really is.  They become involved in trying to leave a legacy and this usually forms the core of the second half of his life.


These last two paragraphs have major implications for how we approach work.

I’ve always liked leadership theories that are about developmental stages, like Robert Kegan’s “evolving self” (or, to a lesser extent, Clare Graves’s (and Don Beck’s) “spiral dynamics“). These theories are about being leaders in a very real sense, not just about enacting leadership techniques. This gives me hope that as I get older, some things get better at least!


* I had an angelic voice as a young boy. Sadly no more. Puberty was cruel to that little voice, and what was once a sweet choirboy song now best resembles a tuneless dog howling at a pneumatic drill while someone scratches their nails down a blackboard.

Robbed of the ability to make my living as a pop singer, I turned to the bass guitar. My previous attempts at playing musical instruments had in no way led me to believe that this was going to be a good idea. I had been forced to learn the recorder at school; we ruined Tuesday afternoons by whining away making “Greensleeves” sound like a cat being encouraged through a mangle.

I had also tried to play the drums, but it was logistically awkward (having no actual drums to play) and so I thought the bass might be the right instrument for me. It had all the features that attracted me: it looked easier, and no one else wanted to do it.

I had dreams of making it in a band and jammed with a couple of school pals. We played a reasonably workmanlike version of Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” and some other covers, but we were pretty rubbish and I was the worst of all by some margin. Despite me being the rhythm section of the band, the guitarist and pianist played as if I weren’t there. We finished at different times. No one seemed to notice that I hadn’t  played all of my notes by the end, I just stopped when they did.

So I turned to theatre.

That angelic voice I mentioned above was a fundamental part of the chorus in more than one amateur production of “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” in the north-west Leeds area in the late 70s. In those days it seemed like that that was the only musical around, and barely a week went by without someone somewhere putting on another version of it. I still occasionally find myself singing “Joseph! Joseph! Is it really you!” in the shower.

The musical door may have been slammed shut in my face, but serious theatre was still an option. At university I “starred” in “several” productions. The most telling feedback I got was from my own Mother who, upon being asked her opinion, kindly answered “I don’t think you’re going to be on TV”.

† This was painfully rammed home when a work colleague came out of the bathroom complaining about having found unsightly hair growing out of his ears. He came to ask me if this was the sort of thing he should start to expect!

Why ask me?” I protested, awkwardly covering the unsightly hair on my ears.

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